By Grace Harrison
Special to the Sun
Kern River Valley residents are more than frustrated with the Kern County Code Compliance Division’s timeline for managing reported violations.
“When someone new comes into town, a new business, a new resident, and they look around at this, it’s like, is this where they want to be? Probably not,” remarks Judy Hyatt, President of the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce on the state of County Code Compliance in the KRV. Hyatt, who owns Hyatt Consulting Group, specializes in government and community relations. “I’m just not sure people who don’t live here care much about those things. That’s part of the problem with our Code Compliance issues – owners don’t live here and they don’t care. They don’t have to look at it every day. The fact that it sits empty and boarded up is irrelevant to their overall financial wellbeing. We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she explained.
Hyatt believes that at the root of this problem is money. She explained that the County Board of Supervisors approves a budget which results in certain departments receiving more funding due to their need in the community. She cites first responders as an example. “The people that do the job, that are out there inspecting these buildings, are doing what they can with what they’ve got. But they don’t have enough. When I say they don’t have enough, they don’t have enough people. They don’t have enough boots on the ground to start making an impact,” Hyatt expressed.
The Code Compliance Division is a complaint-driven level of county government dedicated to working with local residents to promote health and safety as well as to maintain community standards. Building, housing and waste codes are among the numerous regulations enforced by the Code Compliance Division. Examples of code violations range from the improper disposal of waste to living in structures or on premises that are unsafe and dangerous. Complaints are made both online and over the phone. The path taken by Code Compliance Officers depends on the situation at hand.
Ted Brummer, the Code Compliance Liaison of the Lake Isabella Bodfish Property Owners Association (LIBPOA) has worked closely with the Code Compliance Division for over 2 years. Brummer has reported 64 local houses to the county during that time. According to Brummer, only four of these houses have been acted upon by the Code Compliance Division. “There is a need for more,” Brummer states.
According to Christy Fitzgerald, a Code Compliance Supervisor, the time it takes to properly process a complaint depends on the types of violations a building infringes upon. A house without utilities that has parties living on the premise is immediately red-tagged. If a building is unsecured with trash on property, a 14 day courtesy letter is sent to the owner. An inspection by a Code Compliance Officer and 30 day notice follows if the owner of the property does not respond to the courtesy letter.
“We have a process, that’s why the community may think we’re not doing anything, but we actually have a process that we have to follow by law because every one of our cases could be a possible court case. And everything we do is reviewed by County Council, so we have very strict regulations of what we can do,” Fitzgerald explained.
The process also relies on decisions made by the property owner. “We may give them time to abate it; we have to do that if they ask for time. If we do it, we do the notifications and then we have to do a process that shows if there’s anything, additional lenders or additional parties, that we have to notify,” said Fitzgerald.
However, buildings that violate code can be properly disposed of in less than a year. “Our process for a board up, a clean-up, it can be done in 90 days. A demo can take 9 months. It just depends on how the process is,” she remarked.
When asked about the state of the Code Compliance Division in the KRV, Fitzgerald had a positive outlook. However, when asked about certains buildings KRV residents cited in their complaints, Fitzgerald was not able to give specifics.
“We respond as quickly as we can. I’m not going to comment on what anyone says or why we don’t do something as quickly as someone would want us to. That would take some research if they gave me all the addresses and why it took so long and why it didn’t. I can only tell you that we’ve been very aggressive up there in the last 2 years,” she explained.
Fitzgerald cites the work done by Code Compliance Officer Jacob Clayton, who is stationed in KRV as well as other parts of District 1. “Obviously with one officer up there, four officers through the entire county, we prioritize what we feel are the worst cases as far as health and safety. We take that area very seriously up there. I’ve had an officer up there for the last 2 years. He’s been very aggressive and has worked really hard to stay on top of it as much as possible,” Fitzgerald stated.
According to Fitzgerald, almost $100,000 has been spent on abatement costs in the KRV in this fiscal year alone, which runs from July to July. “We get $500,000 a year from the Board of Supervisors for our abatement costs throughout the county. We’ve spent, in the Kern River Valley alone, already this year, over $96,000,” she revealed.
When asked if there was a way KRV residents could help during the complaint process, Fitzgerald said, “No, there isn’t. We have to go through our process. Any pictures that we have to take have to be taken by our officers or law enforcement with a date stamp. We appreciate the community turning in properties, that type of thing. I will say that we have to prioritize.”
However, Fitzgerald did encourage residents to contact the Sheriff’s department if a party is living in red-tagged building. “We do the best we can and we feel we’ve done a really good job up there. But, obviously, some people are going to feel that we don’t get it done as quickly as possible. We don’t ignore anything, we work our cases,” she explained.
Hyatt, Brummer and other local residents believe they each have solutions to solve this problem in a timely matter. Since his installation as the Code Compliance Liaison for the LIBPOA, Brummer has worked closely with Assemblyman Devon Mathis in dissecting this topic. He also plans on contacting California Senator Shannon Grove and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Brummer also wants to arrange a town hall meeting for KRV residents to voice their complaints.
Hyatt also believes the solution lies with contacting elected representatives. “There are a number of things we’re going to try. A lot of it has to do with getting our elected representatives on board and letting them know we just don’t want to tolerate this anymore,” she explained. “It all goes down to what you, as a citizen, want your community to look like. What kind of community do you want to live in? A lot of people feel helpless that they can’t fix it. Well, yeah, they can, it’s just the will has to be there, the willingness to stand up and say ‘I’m not going to allow this to continue.’ You don’t bully the politician, you say ‘What can I do to help?’ Most of the time, once you show your serious about it, you can get some help. The bottom line is money, and are they willing to spend it,” she continued.
Like many other KRV residents, Supervisor Mick Gleason has been paying attention to the Code Compliance Division in District 1, specifically in the KRV. Ultimately, he believes both KRV residents and the Code Compliance Division have valid points. According to Gleason, 1,083 buildings in District 1 have been reported to the county with 60 percent of the buildings located in the KRV. A quarter of a million dollars has also been spent on abatement costs. Gleason has been working closely with Division Officer Ali Annan, revealing that they are currently focusing on a property in Onyx that is in violation of the code. He also stressed the importance of private property rights and that citizens can’t force themselves onto private property because they believe it violates the county code.
On March 28, 2019, Gleason held a Meet & Greet event with KRV residents. Code Compliance Division Officer Ali Annan was in attendance and able to answer the questions KRV residents had in regards to the Code Compliance. Gleason believes the event was a success and feels that many KRV residents left the event feeling informed and heard. Along with the Code Compliance Division, Gleason accepts, appreciates and understands the concern KRV residents have for the valley.